Philosophy, recent, Religion, Right of Reply

Values, Even Secular Ones, Depend on Faith: A Reply to Jerry Coyne

Jerry Coyne’s article “Secular Humanism is Not a Religion” is longer than my “Is Secular Humanism a Religion?”, perhaps because he is confused about what I said. Or perhaps I was too concise. Possibly the problem was my title (not mine, but Quillette’s) which is a bit misleading.

I wasn’t saying that secular humanism is a religion. I was saying that in those aspects of religion which actually affect and seek to guide human behavior, secular humanism does not differ from religion. It has commandments, just as Christianity has. But they are covert, not in plain sight and not easily accessible: not, therefore, as vulnerable to criticism as religious dicta. Moreover, in no case are secular commandments derivable from reason. Like religious “oughts” they are also matters of faith. Secular morals are as unprovable as the morals of religion.

Coyne asks us to believe that secularists are somehow above the fray: “In contrast [to religious morality], the morality of secular humanists derives from rational consideration about how we ought to act—principles based largely on reason but ultimately grounded on a secular preference (i.e., ‘I prefer a society in which individuals do what maximizes well-being.’).” But he absolutely misses Hume’s point: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me.” Action requires motive; reason by itself provides no motive; reason cannot tell us how we ought to act.

My argument is simple: religions have three characteristics: spiritual, mythical/historical, and moral. Secular humanism lacks the first two and is often quite critical of these aspects of religion. But they are largely irrelevant to politics. Hence the truth or falsity of religious myths is also irrelevant, as are Coyne’s disproofs of the existence of God. The fact that religious morals are derived from religious stories—myths in Mr. Coyne’s book—does not make them any more dismissible than Mr. Coyne’s morals, which are connected to nothing at all. In his own agnostic terms, all are matters of faith.

It really doesn’t matter whether a judge or a politican believes in God or the virgin birth, unless such beliefs lead him—in violation of the First Amendment—to block the teaching of biology. In general, the moral strictures of religion are alone relevant to policy. And the secularists have just as many of those as their religious opponents. In other words, in all the ways that matter for action, secularists and religious believers do not differ.

John Staddon is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Professor of Biology, Emeritus, at Duke University. His most recent books are Scientific Method: How science works, fails to work or pretends to work (2018, Routledge), and The Englishman: Memoirs of a psychobiologist, (2016, University of Buckingham Press). You cannot follow him on Twitter.

Feature photo by Alf Ribeiro / Shutterstock.